Ruby Ku is using design approach, appropriate technology and new business model to solve problems that are worth solving. She works at Thinktiv and splits her time between interaction design and program management. She loves good books, good conversations, and a good cup of coffee. She was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Toronto. Her heart beats equally for both places.

I am not trying to “save the world”. I do, however, see it as my duty to leave the world a better place than when I entered it. This is me, stepping up, with hopes of being joined by others in my generation, so that together we can create a better future that we all want to be a part of. So often I feel restless, seeing the gap between my vision and the current reality, but for now, I am working hard to do what I can and creating a path that is the most suitable for me.


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Recent Blog Posts


This time this year: some summer reflections

Around this time last year, I was getting ready to leave Toronto to begin this new journey at AC4D. This time this year, I can definitively say that it was the best decision I’ve made.

Over the last few months, I’ve gotten emails from prospective students asking what it’s like at AC4D. I’ve tried my best to answer those questions. But as with all things, thoughts continue to evolve.

The questions I get generally fall into 3 categories:

  • Skills (ex. I don’t have a design background, or do I have to learn how to code, etc)
  • Workload (ex. can I attend AC4D and hold a full-time job at the same time?)
  • Future (ex. what can I do after AC4D?)

After having continued to work on HourSchool throughout the summer, here are some of my newest thoughts.

Re: Skills

There is really nothing you must be and there is nothing you must do. There is a curriculum, and there are a set of skills you are expected to possess by the time you graduate. However, from my experience of launching HourSchool, it’s not about the things you’re being told to learn. It’s about constantly stepping out of your comfort zone, doing whatever it takes to make the thing you’re passionate about happen – be it sketching, coding, public speaking, or accounting. There was a good discussion thread over at IxDA a couple months ago about whether interaction designer should also have “technical skills”, but it really is more than that. AC4D is about nurturing people who would just go make things happen.  Dee would say that social entrepreneurs do not let their own limited resources keep them from pursuing their visions. Daniel Burka would tell you ideas are cheap, building is hard. And we at AC4D would tell you that the things you need to do after building is even harder.

Re: Workload

A good number of us continued to work on our social ventures/projects/programs after we graduated in April (well, after some well-deserved breaks). And I think we are reaching a conclusion that AC4D, although intense, provided a structure that was necessary for us to focus, progress rapidly, and got really close as a group. Even nearly 4 months since we graduated, we are still trying to find a sense of normalcy (whatever that means in the first place) in our lives. Taking care of those relationships and our own body well-beings that have taken a back seat for the past year, while trucking along with these “side projects” without schedules, structure, and support, is very hard – crazy to say, but post-ac4d is almost as hard as the ac4d school year itself. There have been talks about forming some sort of optional part-time incubation-style studio time next summer for the students who plan to stick around in Austin. So yeah, ac4d is intense, but at least it’s structured-intenseness.

Re: Future

If you are coming to AC4D confused about what to do with your life; chances are, by the time you graduate, you’ll still be confused about what to do with your life. Seriously. You’ll have more skills, you’ll have more options, and you’ll have bigger dreams – how is that not even more confusing? On top of that, the truth about how there aren’t a ton of opportunities out there that provide both work that changes lives and a good paycheck, remains the truth. A big part of AC4D is about creating those opportunities for yourselves so you don’t rely on the job market to provide that for you. “Do I have to start a business? I don’t see myself as an entrepreneur, and I don’t want to be one”, many have asked. A bunch of us are, and a bunch of us aren’t. But when I look around my classmates, I see every single one of them embracing an entrepreneurial attitude, making an impact in the way they feel most appropriate. The best part of that is when you’re surrounded by a group of people like that, they will push you to be the best you can be every day – sometimes even yell at you for worrying and making excuses. It’s great.

I’m really excited to meet the new students, and almost a little jealous that they are about to go through this incredible experience.

Posted in Design Education | 1 Comment

Interaction Designer and Social Entrepreneur are like Ice Cream and Oreo

So the school part of AC4D is over. But I think all of us recognize that this journey has just begun and I hope to continue to use this as a platform to articulate our thoughts, state our opinion, and design publicly. Coming into AC4D with some socent knowledge and having immersed myself in the ixd world for the last 8 months, I have been internalizing how the two worlds fit together, what they mean to me, and how I would talk about them. As Frank Chimero wrote, “Writing pushes forward”. So I figured the only way I would be able to figure that out is to begin writing about it. These are more of my general thoughts about the industries so they will sound awfully obvious to the AC4D students, but do comment and add to this if you agree/disagree.

First and foremost, there’s this common ground: Both interaction designers and social entrepreneurs aspire and have the ability to create something new in the world that fundamentally disrupts the way things are currently being done.

Now I want to talk about why I think they need each other.

Why SocEnt needs more IxD’s thinking+doing:

1) The What – build solution based on people’s needs, not what feels good

Some social enterprises get a lot of press. Compelling photography combined with a charismatic leader are very PR worthy and easy to get lots of people excited. But as many have already written about, solutions that just “give” instead of building a community’s capacity to help itself does not solve anything. Akhila Kolisetty gave some solid examples in her recent blog post on some American’s attempts to tackle social problems – “TOMS shoes’s model of distributing free shoes undermine the local economy; voluntourism or ‘slum’ tours where rich Americans go abroad to see how the poor live in slums; Greg Mortenson building schools which ultimately end up as empty buildings when no one has bothered to properly train and pay teachers or make sure the school is what the community really needs.” Akhila was right when she said, “There is a lot more we can do to simply ask the community, What is it that you need, and how can we help you get there? There is a lot more we can do to serve their needs, rather than our agendas.” And this is exactly the place for more design research. Drawing from ethnographic techniques from other social science disciplines, design research is a process to uncover issues that are deeply embedded in culture and often aren’t expressed immediately. Whether through immersion or co-designing, design research helps everyone at stake get to a solution that they all care about, have a shared value in, and would be accountable for.

2) The How – learn how to make stuff so social entrepreneurship can be accessible

A lot of great work is being done in the social innovation arena. But the output is often in the form of whitepaper, conference panels, blog posts, and a lot of discussions around what great potential we have to end poverty and what great era we’re in to change history. Many in the field also believe “thinking is action”, leaving a lot of young people feeling this: “OK, I’m inspired, but now what? If I quit my corporate job tomorrow, what can I do? How do I begin working on problems that matter if I don’t find working at the soup kitchen or applying to the peace corp compelling?” I shared those same sentiments a year ago, which was what led me to apply to AC4D. Recently, more and more socent grad programs are incorporating design thinking into their curriculum. But design is fundamentally about making, and that the power of design thinking will not be realized unless it’s coupled with the making part of design. I have reflected upon this after IxDA this year in my other blog post here. Jon Kolko has also recently written about the role of designer in a startup and the qualities of a designer that are so essential to making ideas happen. More aspire-to-be social entrepreneurs will find themselves in a much better place to “know what to do next” if they learn “how to make”.

Why IxD needs more SocEnt’s thinking+doing:

1) The What – to solve problems worth solving and develop a sense of purpose

Thousands of talented young people graduate from design school every year, then go off and work at prestigious agencies where they create yet another app for the big telecommunication company or another iteration of the logo for an airline. It’s no longer news that my generation does not aspire to that type of work. We want to work on meaningful problems that change the world for the better, even if it means walking away from the big fat paycheck and living like a college student again. The social entpreneurship arena has nothing but challenging, meaningful, large-scale social and humanitarian problems. Education, health, environment, the hardest problems all in front of you and you can tackle whichever to your heart’s desire. As Gary Chou from Union Square Ventures has said, “A lot of people in the tech world talk a lot about how in order for an entrepreneur to be successful, they have to be passionate. But what hit me was that I realized that you can’t be passionate unless you have a sense of purpose about something. It’s sort of a precursor.” You don’t find meaning by being comfortable at a cubicle, nor talking about what you’re passionate about all day. You find meaning by stepping up, admitting that designer has a responsibility to create a better world, and act on it.

2) The How – a great product is not enough to solve the problem

Designers are driven to build beautiful, desirable things. They care about the user experience and the aesthetics, but not a lot of them think about how they get funded, how they get to market, or how they get into the hands of the end users. Designers feed off from being able to tackle a complex problem and create an awesome solution for it. But they get bored when they have to deal with the logistics, the project management, the cost and benefit analysis. But if the most awesome thing ever designed has nobody there to build it, fund it, launch it, support it, and use it, it’s a waste of time and money, and certainly doesn’t do the world any good. Great solutions almost always need an entity (a business/organization) in order to do all of the above. Thinktiv’s CEO Jonathan Berkowitz wrote that in order to navigate the challenges of moving something from Powerpoint to Production, a vision for the company needs to have 3 dimensions: a problem solving strategy (product or service), a customer acquisition strategy (sales and marketing), and a monetization strategy. As social entrepreneurs can no longer ignore the need to learn how to make, designers also can no longer ignore all the things that need to happen to bring their design to market.

There is so much great talent in the IxD and SocEnt worlds, but too often they work in silos. More people need to learn to cross the artificial boundary, take the best from both fields, and transform themselves into someone who can 1) create with a rigorous design process, 2) driven by an entrepreneurial spirit to challenge status quo and create something for the betterment of the world.

Interaction designer and social entrepreneur are kinda like ice cream and oreo – they are great on their own, but better with each other.

Posted in Social Innovation | 2 Comments

Learn to build an airplane in hours because that’s the only way you’ll be able to build one. When do we ever learn the lesson?

I thought I understood think/make. But I didn’t really understand think/make.

For the last few weeks, we have been working on marketing plan, crunching financial spreadsheets, moving pixels, and entering the matrix doing a lot of git push heroku. You know, the nuts and bolts of starting a business and building a product. The things that will give our potential customers an actual site to use and let investors know how much we have thought through this stuff.

All the right stuff to do. But a conversation with Justin yesterday reminded me of how “we still don’t have anything to show”. After internalizing more, I think the larger point being, if we’re really building on existing behavior, really meeting an actual need, really making our customers’ lives easier – we should be able to show demand with or without technology. If it takes the two of us manually coordinating classes, then that’s what it’ll take. When it becomes too much, we’ll move to a spreadsheet in order to keep track. When that becomes too much, then we’ll figure out something else. But until we get to that point, it feels rather empty that we’re sitting in front of a computer projecting revenue.

Fast Co.Design had an article posted on Monday on “Wanna Solve Impossible Problems? Find Ways to Fail Quicker“:

MacCready’s insight was that everyone who was working on solving human-powered flight would spend upwards of a year building an airplane on conjecture and theory without a base of knowledge based on empirical tests. Triumphantly, they would complete their plane and wheel it out for a test flight. Minutes later, a year’s worth of work would smash into the ground.

Again, nothing we don’t know already, nothing we haven’t been taught. But what stuck out to me in the article was when the author said:

Progress was slow for obvious reasons, but that was to be expected in pursuit of such a difficult vision. That’s just how it was, went the common thinking.

We’re looking to address wicked problems – the large-scale ill-defined complex social problems that have been around for decades and centuries. We expect things to move slowly. We expect not to solve things overnight. But a little re-framing will get the momentum going, like when Paul MacCready built that airplane in half a year after nobody could for 18 years:

He came up with a new problem that he set out to solve: How can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours, not months?

So lesson learned (for the nth time):

When you are solving a difficult problem, re-frame the problem so that your solution helps you learn faster. Find a faster way to fail, recover, and try again. If the problem you are trying to solve involves creating a magnum opus, you are solving the wrong problem.

This morning I sent a bunch of emails to people who have previously expressed their interests in holding/taking classes so we can start having real customers. Fundamentally, our idea holds true with or without Facebook Connect on Rails.

I think I understand think/make a little better today than I did yesterday.

Posted in Social Innovation | 1 Comment

Design Synthesis is a process to Be Intentional

I’ve always stated my love of being in design synthesis land. It’s also where some of the most defining moments of HourSchool occurred.

Back in January, we were still thinking that there would be two types of audience using our site: the student and the teacher. We wanted to understand what the student and the teacher would do, respectively, before and after signing up to take/teach a class. As we stepped back from the whiteboard after we were done, we realized we did a temporal zoom. And in that, we found our theory of change. The student and the teacher aren’t two separate personas. They are the same person. Our mission is to transform current students into future teachers – and there is a very specific point in time during the process when that happens.

As we prepared for our final presentation last week, we spent hours trying to find the right balance between talking about problem (our research) vs. solution (our product). After multiple iterations, we ended with a story we were happy with. We stepped back again, and this is what we saw: People’s best part of the day is when they get to teach their peers + old school model does not provide avenue to do that = we will build a platform that allows peer-led social learning.

My original thought was that we used these synthesis methods accidentally. We were simply sketching out what felt right in our heads, and only noticed afterwards that we had used the methods. But as I began blogging and reflecting upon Q3, I concluded that there is nothing accidental about our synthesis.

Insight combination is a method that helps generate design ideas by combining what the designers gathered from research with knowledge from their own past experiences. The method suggests writing down all the data points and design patterns on color post-it notes, move them around, and force relationships between them in order to generate new design ideas.

By constructing stories together, asking hard questions, and walking each other through hypothetical scenarios, we were gradually building our “insight bank”. In particular, I found our impromptu mini-research sessions with others have been the most inspiring, and almost always connected some dots for us. No, they do not replace the rigorous approach of design research. Rather, I think they are one of the most essential parts during design synthesis, as the designer slowly put the various pieces together.

So here’s my new thought: although synthesis may happen unconsciously, it does not happen accidentally. To Alex‘s favorite saying of the year, “Be Intentional”. There’s nothing accidental about our idea, our theory of change, our product, and our business. Our brains constantly drew from the insight bank that we intentionally built.

Design Synthesis, as it turns out, is a process to be intentional.

Posted in Methods | Leave a comment